“Boys will be boys.”
Usually this refers to the way some boys engage in rough-and-tumble play for much of the day and girls don’t. When I talk to other teachers who allow and encourage rough-and-tumble play, I get a very different picture. We all agree that big body play or rough-and-tumble play seems fairly mixed gender-wise. I have 8 boys and 2 girls in my preschool class this year, but about half the time someone asks me to get out the mats for roughhousing, it is a girl. When kids are piled on top of each other, there are girls and boys in the mix.
There is research that shows that girls are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play when the teacher does. It has been my experience that kids also participate in activities that the adults around them clearly love. It makes sense to me that if a teacher has fun roughhousing, most kids will participate regardless of gender.
As I work on my book on rough-and-tumble play, I keep thinking about gender, both the gender of the children as well as the gender of the teachers. I am always reluctant to talk about gender and behavior. I think that boys have certain tendencies and girls have certain tendencies, but there is a lot of crossover. In her book Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, Barrie Thome observed young elementary school students. This age group is known for segregating themselves by gender, but Thome found that the vast majority (80%) of boys played with girls and the same percentage of girls played with boys some of the time.
Thome refutes the notion of separate “boy culture” and “girl culture.” Children may show a preference for others of their own gender, but it is not exclusive. This thinking of separate cultures with distinct behaviors can quickly cause adults to become essentialist in terms of gender.
For example, in Wired to Move: Facts and Strategies for Nurturing Boys in an Early Childhood Setting, Ruth Hanford Morhard suggests teachers “give boys opportunities for physical contact,” but then goes on to say, “Make sure the boys understand this kind of physical contact is fine with boys, but not with girls.” This otherwise excellent book makes the mistake of conflating a tendency of boys (and girls) into an absolute truth about the genders. There are boys who would not be OK with this contact and there are girls who would enjoy it. And yes, there are children that are perceived to be boys who may not have come to their full gender identity as a girl (or vice versa).
All children need the freedom to move their bodies in the way they choose while respecting the rights of others regardless of gender. This means that many boys will crash their bodies into other boys, but some girls may be involved in this type of play as well.
Having said that, I think that the idea of “boy culture” could be useful. Boys are expelled from preschools at a much higher rate than girls. They are referred for special needs at a much higher rate as well. Meanwhile the teachers are almost exclusively women (at least 95% depending on what statistics you use). I am not claiming that there aren’t women who “get” rough-and-tumble play. And I am not concerned about how much of a behavior is learned and how much is biological. I am merely talking about the teachers’ responses to the full body expression of many boys and some girls.
I also think that there is culture within the field of Early Childhood Education with a wide array of variations within this culture. There is a tendency to favor sitting and reading books over other storytelling media (storytelling, acting, video). There is often a rejection of certain types of play such as violent-themed play and roughhousing that is common among boys. The result is a culture clash.
None of this is intentional. Many of these teachers may not have had the need to move as much as many of the boys (and some girls) in their classrooms. I am not implying that teachers are intentionally not meeting boys’ needs but rather they are unknowingly using their cultural expectations to determine what is acceptable.
This becomes more pronounced when looking at African-American boys. The vast majority of teachers are white women. The intersection of race and gender present some unique concerns. As stated, boys tend to express themselves with their whole bodies in ways that teachers often view as disruptive. When African-American boys are behaving boisterously, the teachers might not only view it as disruptive, but they may attach some intentionality to it. They may perceive a child as being aggressive when they play this way, or perhaps even defiant. I think white boys are given a little more latitude (boys will be boys) even if they are also scolded.
I think all teachers need to look at their own preferences and recognize that they may not “get” why kids do certain things. They may be uncomfortable playing certain ways, but they can do it anyways knowing that they are trying something from a different “culture” that can be appreciated and accepted. They can let kids be kids.